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Carmen Herrera: Cutting Edge at 101

Carmen Herrera, "Blanco y Verde" (1967). Acrylic on canvas, 40 × 70 in. (101.6 × 177.8 cm). Private Collection © Carmen Herrera
 

By PHOEBE HOBAN, SEPT. 2016

Everything comes to those who wait. Last year, Carmen Herrera, the indomitably brilliant geometric abstract painter, got her first dose of bonafide fame at age 100, when the Whitney included her in its inaugural show at their new downtown space, mounting her painting, "Blanco y Verde," (1959) next to works by Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Agnes Martin and Jasper Johns.

At 101, Herrera can now boast two more significant shows, both major solo exhibits. The first was the inaugural exhibition of London-based Lisson Gallery’s Chelsea space under the High Line, which opened in May 2015, an eye-popping display of Hererra’s trademark sharp-edged minimalist geometric abstraction, much of it painted in just the last several years.

And on Friday, September 16, the Whitney opened Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sightits beautifully curated homage to the artist as a major 20th century painter, devoting three rooms and their eighth-floor entrance to her early work, painted between 1948 to 1978, from the days Herrera was first starting to develop her style in Paris at the Salon des Realites Nouvelle in the late 1940s, through the late 1970s, twenty years after she and her husband returned to America. Many of these paintings are now being shown for the first time. Herrera herself had not seen them in more than half a century.

Carmen Herrera, "i>Amarillo 'Dos'" (1971). Acrylic on wood, 40 × 70 × 3 1/4 in. (101.6 × 177.8 × 8.3 cm). Maria Graciela and Luis Alfonso Oberto Collection © Carmen Herrera

Two days before the show opened to the public, the artist was present. Not just present, but sipping Champagne. The occasion was a private view for funders and loaners, followed by cocktails and dinner. But Herrera was almost a no-show when the sky blackened and a deluge ensued, just moments before she was due to be escorted to the museum by Tony Bechara, her neighbor, friend, and longtime supporter, who in the past has arranged shows for her at El Museo del Barrio, where he was former chair, in 1998, and at a Latin American gallery in Soho in 2004, where the collectors Agnes Gund and Ella de Cisneros bought Herrera’s work — her first sale, at age 89.

“I had a car and people ready to help,” says Bechara, referring to the fact that for the last few years Herrera has been wheelchair-bound. “Then it started to pour, and I was trying to decide what to do. I looked out the window, and suddenly there a rainbow, and I said, ‘That’s it. We are going!’”

Before the evening’s guests arrived, Herrera, accompanied by Bechara, the show’s curator Dana Miller, and Whitney director Adam Weinberg, got her own private view. “She remembered every single painting,” says Bechara. “She told me, ‘I was very apprehensive, wondering if I would know the paintings of so long ago. The moment the elevator door opened, I saw the Days of the Week [a series of seven paintings, circa the 1970s] right in front of me…I felt a sense of ‘I did not do bad at all.’ Thirty years! All in front of me! I never dared hope for such a sight!”

Carmen Herrera, "Untitled" (1948). Acrylic on canvas, 48 × 38 in. (121.9 × 96.5 cm). Collection of Yolanda Santos Art © Carmen Herrera

The pieces, striking abstractions well ahead of their time, part of why Herrera (who apart from being female is also Latino — she was born and raised in Havana) was totally sidelined during the peak of Abstract Expressionism, range from works which retain just a hint of figuration, such as A City, 1948, which features shapes resembling a cityscape, to her beautiful Rondos of the 50s, where she plays with spare geometric forms, often not only on the canvas itself, but continuing onto the frame, to rarely-seen sculpture of the 1970s.

The heart of the show are nine of her phenomenal, echt-minimalist, Blanco y Verde series, mostly excecuted in the 1960s, (there are several from the last 50s and one from 1971) when much of America was pondering Pop. These works so distilled they could be painted Haikus — which is how Herrera herself describes them — highlight her architectural training (she studied architecture in Havana) and are perhaps the purest distillation of her vision.

“She was always stripping things away,” says Miller. “This shows her signature style mined to glorious effect. She is a great 20th century abstract painter who should be mentioned in the same paragraph with Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly. She was cutting edge.” Herrera, who continues to works in her studio everyday, still is. WM

 

Phoebe Hoban

Phoebe Hoban is an American journalist perhaps known best for her biographies of the artists Jean Michel Basquiat and Alice Neel. Her most recent book is "Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open," 2014. Her Basquiat biography, "Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art," came out as an e-book in May 2016.

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